Years ago, when her young son was going through a mummy phase, Eve Lowenstein wound up reading a lot of mummy books. A dermatologist and one-time molecular biologist, she was soon hooked on paleopathology, the study of ancient diseases. Her obsession would long outlive her son’s.
At first, just curious, she sat down to do a quick scan of the scientific literature to find out what mummies had revealed about skin diseases. “It turned into a year-and-a-half project,” says Lowenstein, who practices dermatology in Brooklyn, New York. She found mummy studies of more than 100 skin-related diseases, from leprosy and scurvy to cancer and diabetic foot ulcers. In 2004, she published a comprehensive review of these so-called ‘paleodermatoses‘ — several of which, she discovered, had been misdiagnosed.
A mummy is an old, old corpse — soft tissue and skeleton — preserved either by chemicals (like the remarkably effective salt mixtures of the ancient Egyptians) or ice or desert. Sometimes, tell-tale signs of disease are preserved, too. Syphilis infections, for example, can leave behind small lesions, or ‘worm holes’, on the surface of the skull and other bones. Some scientists have found traces of DNA of Mycoplasma tuberculosis, the bug that causes tuberculosis, inside the bones of Egyptian mummies. Last month, a team reported that CT scans detected calcium deposits in mummies that probably came from clogged arteries.
These ancient disease signatures are often subtle, requiring the trained eye of a medical specialist. According to Lowenstein, paleontologists would do better with more help from dermatologists.
Take, for example, the mummy of Ramesses the Great, the pharaoh of Egypt from 1279 to 1213 BC. Ramesses had blackheads across his forehead, which some scholars attributed to a lack of washing. But if they had consulted a dermatologist, Lowenstein says, they would have learned that the blemishes are more likely a remnant of chronic sun damage.
Her review also cites a mummy of an elderly woman featuring a 13-inch horn extruding from her skull. Most researchers believed it was a large sebaceous cyst — a puss-filled blister — that had burst. That explanation is probably wrong, too, Lowenstein says. “Any dermatologist who had looked at the pictures would have known it was skin cancer.”
Which brings me to why this stuff matters (other than the fact that mummies are inherently fascinating). There’s a raging debate about whether cancer is a modern disease — triggered by our growing exposure to toxins and/or hormones and/or sugary, processed foods — or something that has always been with us, and maybe always will. The former idea has gained a lot of traction recently. A new book uses scary cancer anecdotes to play up the dangers of our toxic world. Last month, Gary Taubes wrote a maddeningly flimsy cover story for the New York Times Magazine claiming that sugar causes cancer, even though there is absolutely no direct evidence to support the idea.
While it’s true that few tumors have been found in mummies so far, that’s far from iron-clad proof that cancer is caused by our modern lifestyles. (That’s a terrific link, by the way, if you’re interested in the cancer can of worms.) In any case, as Lowenstein’s research has shown, a lot can be gleaned from taking a look (or a second look, or a third) under a mummy’s skin.